The Wojtek Memorial Story
There is a new addition to Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. Unveiled on 7th November 2015 a memorial to Polish soldiers and Wojtek “the Polish Soldier Bear” now takes its place on the upper terrace in the west of the gardens just opposite Castle Street. It has quickly become a photo shoot location and meeting point and the picture this time is of Sir John Holmes GCVO KBE CMG, Director of the Ditchley Foundation with Krystyna Szumelukowa, trustee of the Wojtek Memorial Trust and a member of the Asia Scotland Institute.
The Wojtek Memorial story starts in March 1942 in Persia. Polish prisoners and deportees had been imprisoned in Siberia and beyond by the Soviet Union after September 1939. They were released as a condition of the Anglo- Soviet Alliance, which allowed for the formation of a new Polish Army led by General W?adys?aw Anders. After crossing the Caspian Sea they were then rehabilitated and trained by the British 8th Army and began their duties in the Middle East which took them into Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt before then being deployed to fight in Europe.
It was in April 1942 that an orphaned Syrian Brown Bear was adopted as a mascot by the soldiers and given the name “Wojtek” which means Happy Little Warrior. The cub grew to full height by the time the soldiers reached Alexandria in Egypt and Wojtek had learned the life of a Polish soldier in the Middle East. After much argument it was decided that the only way to allow Wojtek to board the MS Batory to sail over to Italy was to officially register him as a soldier!
It was in Italy that his loyalty to his comrades was demonstrated with great valour when of his own volition he began to carry boxes of munitions for the artillery guns during the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944. Despite terrible losses the Poles were able to raise the Polish Flag in victory and for the only time during the whole of the Second World War. After the Italian campaign the soldiers and Wojtek were resettled into the UK and Scotland and Wojtek found himself at the Winfield Air Base in Berwickshire, which became his home for 18 months.
The memorial is a portrayal of the time which marked the transition from war to peace when the soldiers had to start life anew displaced from their homeland, which was now governed by a communist regime under the control of the Soviet Union. The Polish Resettlement Act allowed them to settle in the UK. The start of life anew, or not, also had to be determined for Wojtek. A decision was finally made for the bear to be temporarily resettled into the care and protection of Edinburgh Zoo. His fenced-in home became permanent and for the soldiers also the prospect of being able to return home receded. Wojtek died in 1963 but now the story is reawakened and honoured with the bronzes of the soldier and the bear standing on granite from Poland, as a symbol of the lost homeland in a Scottish setting blessed by friendship between the two countries. A bronze panel in relief depicts the timeline from 1942 to 1963.
It is with great sadness that today the world is facing the consequences of conflict along that same route which took the soldiers and Wojtek from the Caspian Sea to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The displacement of men, women and children in their millions from their homes is catastrophic and the humanitarian crisis of our time was very much part of the talk delivered by Sir John Holmes to the Asia Scotland Institute on 10th November. At the end of the Second World War, when Europe lay in ruins, millions of people were displaced and needed a place of safety where they could rebuild their shattered lives. We are facing similar challenges now. The Wojtek Memorial is a tribute to the resilience of the Polish men and women and a very unique bear in their time and showed that such challenges can be overcome where there is a commitment from governments and where friendship and understanding within communities flourishes. Hope in the future, when lost, can be rekindled with kindness.
11 November 2015
Armistice Day and Polish Independence Day.